In Shanghai, Beijing, and other Chinese cities there are Cultural Revolution theme restaurants, where waitstaff wearing the once-familiar Mao Zedong peasant jackets and caps usher diners to their places on rude wooden benches for a spartan worker's meal. The restaurants are popular. In fact, Chairman Mao likenesses and Red Guard memorabilia, including the formerly ubiquitous Little Red Books, are now collectible nostalgia items in places like Toronto and Paris, as well as among the urban Chinese yuppie class, to whom the '60s are a distant memory. China has obviously come a long way since Mao famously declared: "Revolution is not a dinner party."
Neither is it an art-photo book, even one with such shocking immediacy as Li Zhensheng's Red-Color News Soldier (Phaidon, $39.95), a photographic record of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, 1966-76, as it took place in China's northernmost province of Heilongjiang. Li was a staff photographer for the Heilongjiang Daily. His duties put him in the midst of one of the most frightening political eras of the 20th century -- a reign of terror comparable to the "dirty war" in Argentina or Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge killing machine -- in which China's central Communist government made war on its own people using students as its shock troops. Authority figures of all types, especially intellectuals, were hounded from their jobs and forced to kowtow to jeering mobs. Buddhist temples and other historical buildings were ransacked and destroyed. An entire generation skipped school to camp out and prove its devotion to the Great Helmsman, often violently. Those found unworthy were "sent down" to hard labor in the country. Political analysts tend to describe the Cultural Revolution as a botched attempt to return the Chinese revolution to its fervent popular roots, but the fervency got out of hand and millions of people suffered.
Photographer Li, who was himself denounced and underwent re-education but who now teaches photojournalism at a Beijing university, was under orders not to snap pictures of the "reactionaries" being publicly assaulted, but he hid thousands of negatives and began mailing them out, over a period of years, to Contact Press Images in New York. Robert Pledge of Contact Press eventually edited the mass of photos into the book and an exhibition, "Photographs by Li Zhensheng," 22 of which are now on the walls of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism's Center for Photography, in North Gate Hall on the campus. The images, some of them blown up to life-size, are extremely powerful and provocative. "The photos show the horror of those days and Mao's cult of personality," observes Photo Center director Ken Light. "There is some humor in the show, but the cost in human lives and to the culture was immense. We have a lot of Chinese students come through the space, and it's been fascinating to watch their reactions," particularly since most photos of those days have never been shown in China. According to Light, Pledge originally wanted to publish the book in the late '80s, but the Tiananmen massacre squelched those plans.
The journalism school has scheduled two days' worth of events this week around the exhibition, including a lecture ("Mao's Revolution: What Remains?") on Thursday (7:30 p.m., Sibley Auditorium) and a talk, reception, and book signing with Li Zhensheng himself on Friday. If you miss that, Fotovision.org will be selling copies of Li's amazing book online. The photo show runs through December 17.
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